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Movie Review: Angels & Demons
May 23, 2009 · By Mitch Cyrus

Ron Howard's new movie "Angels & Demons" is written by the same man who created the controversial "The Da Vinci Code", Dan Brown.  That novel polarized Christians across the world, and the brouhaha surrounding the 2006 release of the movie based upon that novel, starring Tom Hanks, resulted in it being an almost-must-see film and a financial success, pulling in over $750 million world-wide.

Based on those numbers, you knew a sequel was coming, especially since there was already another Dan Brown novel out there using the same central character of symbology professor Robert Langdon.  The fact that "Angels & Demons" was actually written before "The Da Vinci Code" did not matter at all, as the book was quickly adapted into sequel format, with Hanks as the only returning cast member from "The Da Vinci Code".

The plot itself in "Angels & Demons" is much less controversial; no outrageous claims such as Jesus having married Mary Madeline and fathering children in this film.  The Catholic Church itself is much less angry about this one as well.  Although they still were reluctant to allow Howard access to film in many of the sites in Rome, that was more of a case of punishing him for the last film rather than being concerned about this one.  In fact, the Catholic Church came out and said that the film was actually just "harmless nonsense".  Hardly the scathing attack that Howard might have been hoping for to put more bodies in the seats.

For the actual film, it has many familiar hooks in it; lots of symbolism, lots of scenes with Tom Hanks standing around staring blankly at some artifact or another, his mind obviously working in over-drive behind his pensive glare.  But it is a much different type of mystery he's trying to solve this time, and in this case he is assisting the Church, not running from one of its whacked out members.

Langdon is called to Rome to help the Vatican Police and the Swiss Guard investigate a murder of a prominent scientist who was also a priest.  The murderer stole an important scientific breakthrough in the form of anti-matter, and is now threatening to destroy the Vatican with it.  It appears as if there is a terrorist group behind this event and the kidnapping of four prominent cardinals, all of whom were considered favorites to be elected Pope after the passing of the current pontiff, as seen in the opening moments.  The group is calling itself the Illuminati, a secret society of scientists and intellectuals who have vowed to one day extract their revenge on the Church for persecutions suffered hundreds of years earlier as the Church strove to discredit any scientific discovery that they felt was contrary to Biblical teachings.

The movie is a therefore nothing more than a stylized murder mystery with the added elements of a thriller involving stopping a terrorist attack.  Langdon must find the clues left in one location as to the location of the next event, trying to stay ahead of the terrorists who have vowed to kill one cardinal per hour at a different location, up until the time when they would detonate the anti-matter, destroying Vatican City.

Working with Langdon (or sometimes against him, it seems) is an unlikely group.  Of course, there must be a female character in these films, and it is Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer playing the role of Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra, one of the scientists who created the antimatter.  She doesn't have a lot to do in the movie, but Zurer, probably most known to American audiences as the wife of Eric Bana's character in "Munich", holds up her end well, and is quite believable as the reluctant sidekick.  Two law enforcement officials are also involved, providing quite a bit of friction.  Pierfrancesco Favino (from "The Narnia Chronicles: Prince Caspian") plays Inspector Olivetti from the Vatican Police.  It was his idea to bring Langdon in on the case, which puts him at odds with Commander Richter of the Swiss Guard (Stellan Skarsgard).  The men would be at odds anyway, as it is explained that the Vatican Police have jurisdiction over Vatican City, but when it comes to matters concerning the Pope, it is the Swiss Guard's sphere of influence.  Therefore, in this case, the two departments are continually at odds.  It doesn't help that Olivetti is a pragmatist, while Richter is a dogmatic hardliner.

Acting as intermediary to all of them is Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, an Irish priest who was the protégé of the deceased Pope, and now stands as the administrative head of the church during the conclave of College of Cardinals until they select a new pope.

There seems to be a lot of things here to remember as you go along, but it's really not that difficult...certainly not as mind-bending as the events and obscure clues seen in "The Da Vinci Code".  But for those of you who might have shorter attention spans, Hanks pretty much talks everyone through every step as he discovers it.

The mystery itself plays out very well, at least on first viewing.  It is only after it is all done that you feel a bit cheated.  Not by the twists and turns, which are done very well, and not telegraphed, but more in the case of looking back and realizing that there were a lot of holes in the logic of the entire process.

But to me, the bigger disappointment is in the way Howard used his cast.  He allowed the mystery to be far more important than the people involved in it.  Tom Hanks is a great actor, but I came out of this knowing nothing new about Robert Langdon.  There was no character development whatsoever, as he just spent his time rushing from one location to another.  We do get one brief scene where he is questioned by the Camerlengo about his faith, but his replies seemed straight out of the "Agnostics for Dummies" book.

I find this amazing considering the talent of Tom Hanks, but his character is a total bore.  It was a lot more fun in "The Da Vinci Code" when he was running for his life, and in danger most of the time, but in this film, Langdon is just hopping from place to place, and talking (and talking...and talking) about symbols, clues, and past events with all the excitement of a tenured professor just making his paycheck by lecturing a Western Civilization 101 class.

All of the other characters were similarly handcuffed by the script and director.  McGregor, Zurer, Favino, and Skarsgard all were excellent in their scenes, but other than what you were seeing of their characters in that particular moment, you knew nothing else about them other than a couple of quickly thrown in clichés such as "devout to the point of obsession", "dedicated scientist", "sympathetic bureaucrat", and the like.  They all read their lines very well, and do the best they can with what they are given...but they weren't given enough.

"Angels & Demons", therefore is an OK film, and an above average thrill ride.  Howard creates some very stylish scenes, and puts all of his pretty pieces on the board in very visually appealing manners, but too often it appears more like an expensive Lamborghini that can't get itself out of second gear.  Maybe this is Dan Brown's fault for his convoluted storytelling in the original novel (which was ridiculed last week by Stellan Skarsgard), or else the blame lies in Howard for falling back on this paint-by-numbers directing style he sometimes exhibits ("The Missing", "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", and "Far and Away", to name three other examples).

In any case, the result is a movie that may be a bit more exciting than the original as far as action goes, but is inferior on most other ways.

My Rating - Kelly Holcomb (2 footballs).  Disappointingly inconsistent but some bright spots.


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